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Culture and Arts


CultureWatch. '12

In These Issues

Isabel, Lolo and Elena's Lists: A selection of fiction and non-fiction books for children and young adult readers certain to make great holiday presents: Jill Norgren writes, This holiday season you may be thinking, iTUNES, or video games, or clothes. My grandgirls suggest that whatever your choices, let there be a book among them. I particularly appreciate that most of the titles they have suggested are available in inexpensive paper editions. And more than a few are books that I would enjoy stealing off with for an hour or two.

Culture Watch: J.K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy and Larson's In the Garden of Beasts: There is a long line of British novels that aim to raise social consciousness: Dickens springs to mind, as do the mysteries of writer Dorothy L. Sayers, whom J.K. Rowling has said she admires. Rowling’s standards could hardly be higher than those two, and her story comes close to being every bit as distressing and rewarding and inspiring as the books of her idols. In Larson's book, as civil liberties eroded and Jews endured terrifying attacks, US Ambassador William Dodd endeavored to make the State Department aware of what was happening in Germany. His measured, careful responses to the growing chaos did not please the fascists nor, sadly, did they stir up outrage back home.

CultureWatch: Bettany Hughes' The Hemlock Cup transcends a mere factual recounting of what we know about Socrates; the book makes the fifth century BC as accessible as possible to a modern reader. Denis Johnson's protagonist in Train Dreams represents a tradition of American men in the developing great West who struggled through to their unnoticed deaths after surviving the first World War. 

CultureWatch: A Debut Author - The Warmth of Other Suns; DVD Tip: The Forsyte Saga The stories of these individual three lives involved in “The Great Migration” are brilliantly told in The Warmth of Other Suns and serve to soften and humanize the long, carefully researched story Isabel Wilkerson has to tell.  DVD Tip: The Forsyte Saga reminds us just how compelling and sexy the Victorian and 1920 eras can be. Can a new production of Trollope's The Pallisers be far behind?

CultureWatch Books: Black Gotham and Gods Without Men. DVD Tip: Judge John Deed. If you respect well-researched history, and crave an open account of the footwork, persistent digging, and sometime serendipity required to creat it, Carl Peterson's Black Gotham should be one of the next books that you read. Trying to keep up with the various characters and periods in Gods Without Men is more than a little daunting but the quality of Kunzru's writing is brilliant. DVD Tip: Judge John Deed's fifth season is available, with a sixth soon to be released. It's another addiction of ours both for the appealing couple Jenny Seagrove and Martin Shaw present and the legal issues explored.

CultureWatch: An Asperger's Puzzle, A Fine New Short Story Author and a Lady Spy Thrills: Nilla Childs has framed Puzzled: 100 pieces of Autism in what she terms the 8 steps to completing a jigsaw puzzle and learning how to give up "what does not work." Megan Bergman’s fine collection of short stories, Birds of a Lesser Paradise, have both moral profundity and light-hearted humor. If you're looking for the next big page-turner, it's in The Expats. Chris Pavone is a dab hand at both mayhem and domesticity

Culture Watch Reviews: Daniel Handler specializes in a light-semi-irreverent tone that manages also to be perceptive and truthful, even as it entertains, in Why We Broke Up, a story of teenage love gone awry. Richard Morgan has crafted a story of the life of Daniel Boone in Boone, A Biography, to rival the best fiction, while demonstrating the most diligent scholarship and devotion to primary sources any reader could ask for

CultureWatch Review, Sybil Exposed: Thanks in large measure to Sybil’s psychiatrist, multiple-personality disorder became an official diagnosis, with consequences for the medical profession, insurance industry, and patients; Debbie Nathan argues persuasively that the book was the product of conspiracy and deceit

CultureWatch Review, City of Fortune: Anyone interested in the history of the Mediterranean will find this book, with its detailed recounting of the political, economic, and religious power struggles during a period of about five hundred years (c. 1000 AD to the 1500’s), quite fascinating. So will anyone who has ever fallen in love with Venice, and has wondered about the history of that amazing, improbable city

CultureWatch Reviews: Swerve illuminates the fascinating nooks of antiquity, as well as the Renaissance, for the neophyte. This is the sort of book that, during these winter months, will bring the pleasure endorsed by Epicurus and Lucretius. Chef Supreme: Martin Ginsburg creates a paean to good food and its ability to create community; the recipes and tributes are rich, as was his life

CultureWatch Reviews: P.D. James has written not just a sequel to the action of Pride and Prejudice: she has somehow absorbed Jane Austen’s style whole in Death Comes to Pemberley, elegant proof that Baroness James deserves her extraordinary literary reputation.Nina Balatka by Trollope is a welcome change of pace for most of us who aren’t ashamed to enjoy a romance, or in need of some entertaining preaching, even if it is to the choir

CultureWatch. '11

CultureWatch's Four Gift Book Suggestions That Involve Murder, Assassination, Racial Hatred and Ageism: Margolick has written a profile of Elizabeth and Hazel, who appeared in an iconic photograph at Little Rock’s High School. How they have handled both friendship and distancing is a long and complex tale. In Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America author Gullette explores the causes and effects of a youth culture that makes growing old wrong in the eyes of many Americans. Assisted Dying, a mystery novel, provides a fast ride on the highways of Florida's Gold Coast and would make a terrific book group choice. Millard's Destiny of a Republic is a sensitive, detailed account of President Garfield’s murder and on our reviewer's highly recommended list

CultureWatch: In Jane Fonda; The Private Life of a Public Woman, Bosworth explores the ambivalences of Jane Fonda as artist, romantic, businesswoman, femme fatale, and partly finished intellectual. Red Grooms' Marlborough Gallery show, New York: 1976-2011, is a madcap collection of paintings, sculptures and walk-through "sculpto-pictoramas" depicting the high-life, low-life and in-between-life of the metropolis

CultureWatch: Biographer Gwinn writes in Emily Greene Balch that Balch “had been fundamental to the life and work of Jane Addams and other settlement and peace workers; she had been an influential teacher, revered friend, a respected scholar and visionary thinker." Dr. Mukherjee, author of Emperor of All Maladies, explains with great clarity just exactly what cancer is, how much we know about it at this point, and possible new directions in which the world of science might proceed to deal with it

Julia Sneden, CultureWatch Review: Pause and batten down the hatches before you plunge in!: Would 1493 by Charles Mann come up to the standard Mann had set so high with 1491? She writes, "The answer, dear reader, is a resounding 'Yes!' That answer does not, however, come without a few caveats"

CultureWatch: Reviewer Jill Norgren writes:In this season of television re-runs, devotees of Law and Order or The Good Wife would do well to turn off the tube, and sit down with Gertner’s book, In Defense of Women: Memoirs of an Unrepentant Advocate. They might pull an all-nighter

CultureWatch: The author of Carthage Must Be Destroyed takes a close look at our preconceived notions of Carthage and Carthaginians, colored as they are by the accounts of Greek and Roman writers who had a vested interest in presenting Carthaginians as cruel and duplicitous. The City of God is a very big book. It is as rich in lofty thinking, baroque writing, sympathetic characters, vivid settings, and suspense as anything you are likely to see more than once or twice in a lifetime. Take your time, but read it

CultureWatch: Dont let the extra pages of notes and bibliography put you off Founding Gardeners, a remarkable book. Neither dull nor pedantic, nor beyond the grasp of anyone who likes history or loves growing things. The Map of True Places is a psychological novel, dealing with layers of each personality and enough mystery to keep it moving with plenty of impetus. DVD Set: The reviewer admits they're watching the Doc Martin complete series for the third time, something the title character (an esteemed but rude doctor) would disdain

CultureWatch: The power and intricacy of The Tiger’s Wife mark the beginning of what, if Téa Obreht keeps writing, should become a distinguished literary career. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, now in paperback, is both a cautionary tale and a call for justice. In 1951 no laws were broken when Henrietta Lacks’ cancer cells were passed on, but ethical issues were ignored by medical and science communities

CultureWatchTwo Trilogies: Dropped Threads and That Salandar Woman — Women write about what they wish they had known earlier and the fact of being female makes the lives of women differ from the lives of men at a deeper level. Our Stieg Larsson Millennium reviewer was suspicious and too stubborn to believe that anything so popular could be so good; she finds otherwise

CultureWatch: Cleopatra: A Life — In the end, we must ask ourselves if Stacy Schiff, one of the most gifted American biographers currently writing, has successfully peeled away two millennia of myth and propaganda or, rather, given us a new myth, a Cleopatra who fits modern, Western feminist thinking. In the Pursuit of Happiness — To call Maria Kalman's work idiosyncratic isn’t nearly powerful enough to describe what she has produced. It is an explosion of such brilliance that one scarcely knows where to start

Culture Watch. '10
CultureWatch, A Bookish Holiday Season and a couple of winning reads for the young: Jane Addams; Spirit in Action relates how Addams stretched her understanding of people and political forces far beyond what she knew as a sheltered child, and through the wisdom translated thought into action. 13 Words by Lemony Snicket and Maira Kalman is a great grandparent/grandchild read.Terry Pratchett, the author of Nation is a profoundly moral writer, his writing consistently playful and often just delicious. There's a caveat about Theodore Boone - Kid Lawyer by John Grisham, too.

CultureWatch, Joan L. Cannon's review of The Constant Liberal. There is a dichotomy evident in Phyllis Bottome's equal determination to do something about injustice and inequity wherever she saw it. Imagine a family that be called dysfunctional mostly because of the self-absorbed and seemingly callous mother who vastly preferred her sister, and a father who was the stereotypical, distant pater familias as the breeding ground for an extraordinarily independent mind

CultureWatch: For anyone enamored of English literature in general and its romantic poets in particular, Young Romantics is a treasure. The Anthologist has a rather bittersweet plot, but includes more criticism, philosophy, and satire than ordinary fiction. Following the Water is actually poetry in prose and science as art, including philosophy and religion without confrontation. The New York Times Practical Guide to Practically Everything is a treat for all who enjoy trivia; a fine resource for straightforward and authoritative information

CultureWatch: This Is a Soul is a moving biography of a physician that gives readers a small window through which to view international medicine;The Beauty Bias delves into many sociological, financial and biological issues related to getting older and why this matters;The Hundred-Foot Journey is a wonderful yarn, in part, because of exotic settings and non-academic dissertations on food

An essay, On Looking Forward to Summer and Good Beach Reads, requires that beach reads be of a stop-and-start, interruptible nature, because one never knows when others in the group might want to take a dip, or go to the ice cream store, or pile into cars to hit the local cinema. The Three Weissmanns of Westport, a tale of the dissolution of a long marriage that is a dead-on look at the emotional, financial, irretrievable cost of the husband's words and actions. 'A novel' appears in fairly small print on the cover of this enjoyable narrative reviewed by Joan L. Cannon, Luncheon of the Boating Party, that is a kind of hybrid of fictionalized biography, historical novel, and discourse on painting techniques of the Impressionists.

CultureWatch: Kristin Hannah's The Winter Garden is a slightly flawed but enjoyable tale about people who fit the fiction, but some perhaps not quite to the life; Daniyal Mueenuddin's In Other Rooms, Other Wonders is a sober, engaging, and thought-provoking volume exploring the decline of Pakistan’s feudal order; In these days of bodice-rippers and cliff-hangers, there are few books best experienced in short dips. Thomas Mallon's Yours Ever: People and Their Letters is a prime example of the latter.

CultureWatch's reviewers Julia Sneden, Jill Norgren and Nichola Gutgold re-read books and those long-denied treats and must-reads: Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God was a ground-breaker; with great intelligence and truth she used her gift for telling a story to reach into our hearts and minds. In Beverley Nichols' Down the Garden Path,  the reviewer chortled at lines such as "I would rather be made bankrupt by a bulb merchant than by a chorus girl"; The Pink Lady: The Many Lives of Helen Gahagan Douglas gives rich detail of Hollywood's heyday and the woman remembered for Nixon's rough treatment.

CultureWatch: P.D. James, in Talking About Detective Fiction, writes "if it is true, as the evidence suggests, that the detective story flourishes best in the most difficult of times, we may well be at the beginning of a new Golden Age."  The Museum of Innocence Orhan Pamuk is from the outset a book arranged by artifice. It is the first book I’ve read where the author inserts himself so directly.

Culture Watch, '09

Jill Norgren's Book Review of Read My Pins: With domestic and global problems on all sides Madeline Albright's new book offers a wonderful interlude in which playfully to consider the human face of diplomacy. It complements Madam Secretary, her memoir,which similarly shows herself and politicians in all their humanity.

CultureWatch: Abigail & John: Portrait of a Marriage is important because it helps to regender early American history which remains overly focused on generals and male political leaders. Lori Hahnel’s collection of short fiction, Nothing Sacred,is spare, subtle, literary but not pretentious in any way, and very pleasing. Now in paperback, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Olive Kitteridge, give the reader a deep sense of the connectedness of the small town and its inhabitants, and of Olive’s place in the scheme of things.

CultureWatch: *A Gate at the Top of the Stairs is about loss, cruelty of others and prejudice, dishonesty, and betrayals that combines humor with heartbreak. The Locust and the Bird will send those who aren’t familiar with Hanan Al-Shaykh's earlier books rushing to the library. Nine Lives, Death and Life in New Orleans may be nonfiction, but the author makes it as affecting as any novelist could. *Chosen one of The New York Times' top ten books of 2009

Nichola Gutgold reviews When Everything Changed; The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present by Gail Collins. It is these stories that serve not only to entertain but to caution the next generation of women to keep pressing on, and to be appreciative of the hard won progress of women who have gone before.

Jo Freeman reviews Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt: This is a very good book. It blends history and contemporary research into a story that both entertains and educates. Those who study social change and those to want to bring it about will learn much from reading about the revolution in bloody Lowndes County.

CultureWatch: Weary of dinosaur and vampire books for children? The Amelia Bloomer Project selection of books is about girls and women "who have broken barriers and have fought to change their situations and their environment …real and fictional [characters who] follow their dreams and pursue their goals, challenging cultural and familial stereotypes.”

CultureWatch: Duchess of Death relates Agatha Christie's travels with her husband on Middle East digs, to sleep in a tent or on a desert floor, hardly usual in a woman “to the manor born.” Dreaming in French thrives on the gossipy, ex-pat society of Paris. Drawing in the Dust is a lively tale of the purported discovery of Jeremiah’s tomb, as well an an engaging romance. Online exhibit, Between Collaboration and Resistance: French Literary Life Under Nazi Occupation.

CultureWatch: My Father's Tears and Other Stories: Joan L. Cannon writes: Each one of John Updike's My Father's Tears and Other Stories makes the reader fully aware of the writer's sense of mortality. These stories come from the imagination and the history of an aging artist. My Father's Tears is not to be missed. 

We Had Sneakers, They Had Guns: The Kids Who Fought for Civil Rights in Mississippi: Jo Freeman's Book Review: Tracy Sugarman's book is a series of sketches, some in pen and ink and some in words. Their purpose is to give a sense of what it was like to be there, or to know that person, at that time. "That time" is not just 1964, but the span of years since.

CultureWatch: Jill Norgren debuts as a SeniorWomenWeb book reviewer and begins with three engaging and beautifully written works of fiction that explore the intersection of emotion, relationship, and culture: The Gift of a Bride and The Indian Bride are murder mysteries, while Unaccustomed Earth, issued in paperback, is a set of short stories. The books are united by a shared concern for the demands, rewards, and complications of marriage and immigration, particularly on the part of individuals who once called India “home.” Joan L. Cannon reviews Somewhere Near the End by Diana Athill: Entertaining and challenging; a literate as well as a literary delight.

Jo Freeman, Book Review, The Wrong Side of Murder Creek: A White Southerner in the Freedom Movement: To those of us who were civil rights activists in the 1960s, Bob Zellner and Constance Curry were legends in their own time. Not big legends like Stokely Carmichael and Julian Bond, but people you knew about even though you never met them, saw them or heard them speak.

CultureWatch: Lords of Finance, apart from being a wonderful lesson in international monetary economics and finance, is a page turner. No Room for Doubt will appeal especially to our readers as it shows how one remarkable senior woman who overcomes the odds and achieves greatness. Serena, a tale of ambition and intrigue of the rape of thousands of Smoky Mountains' acres. Fat Rose & Squeaky on DVD will resonate with those who are determined to stay in control of their lives, and to protect what they have.

CultureWatch: The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry should appeal to all readers of literary fiction; Roseanne McNulty's story becomes an alternative, secret, history of Ireland. Henry Alford is witty and literate, but somehow he has allowed his talents to be diffused, by mixing the intensely personal with the reportorial in How to Live; A Search for Wisdom from Old People. Bailey White's Quite a Year for Plums setting is southern Georgia; the characters are a collection of psychologically peculiar scarred individuals their inventor has endowed with flaws that in spite of being exaggerated don't become burlesque. Online attendance at Shakespeare's Staging is a feast of images and videos.

CultureWatch: The Private Patient by Baroness P.D. James holds our interest by the discovery of not just the who-dun-it, but the complex motives behind the actions. Anyone who loves dogs and brilliant descriptive writing will find Sawtelle rewarding. Wallace Stegner's Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs demonstrates that as a writer of style and elegance, he has few equals. Rancho Weirdo by Laura Chester contains humor that is integral, not incidental, and they are wonderfully irreverent tales.

CultureWatch: The Seamstress of Hollywood Boulevard keeps one foot planted on the ground and the other tapping away in the world of the early motion picture industry; Where the Lake Becomes the River is a treasure for lovers of psychological fiction and a story to savor; Branch in His Hand moved our reviewer with its power, honesty and beauty; The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a classic locked room mystery set on an Swedish island.

Page Two, CultureWatch >>



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